An unbecoming tilt
With the top honors going to Hindi cinema, the 63rd National Film Awards have sidelined regional films like never before
‘Is Indian cinema Bollywood?’ is the one question that avid lovers of cinema were compelled to ask after the announcement of the 63rd National Film Awards this year. In what would have been an unlikely scenario a few years ago, the awards were swept away by commercial Hindi films completely sidelining films made in other languages.
Established in 1954 to celebrate the diversities of Indian art and culture, the Film Awards became synonymous with excellence. Films of all forms and budget were given an equal footing. It encouraged regional filmmakers to make films that represented the idea of India in its truest sense. By giving recognition to some of the finest films ever made like Shyamchi Aai (Marathi), Pather Panchali (Bengali), Chemeen (Malayalam), and Halodhia Choraye Baodhan Khai (Assamese), it brought in the culture of inclusiveness to Indian cinema. National awards started to represent the possibilities that could be explored and the creative heights that could be reached.
But the last few years have seen a slow dilution of the pan India character of the awards. Hindi films had an edge over regional cinema and the most recent announcement made that shift more pronounced than ever. The period drama Bajirao Mastani dominated the top awards with Sanjay Leela Bansali adjudged the Best Director, Tanvi Azmi – Best Supporting Actress, Remo D’Souza – Best Choreography and Sudeep Chaterjee – Best Cinematography. The honors for the Best Actor and Actress went to Amitabh Bachchan for his performance in Piku and Kangana Ranaut for her act in the movie Tanu Weds Manu Returns. Even the Telugu film Baahubali which won the award for the Best Film was released in multiple languages. In a scenario like this, it has become necessary to take a relook at the contributions of regional cinema and analyze its importance in the present times.
Evolution of regional cinema
The history of Indian cinema will remain incomplete without the mention of regional films. With 22 official languages and numerous others spoken throughout the length and breadth of the country, the films are rich in diversity. It is often forgotten that the very roots of Indian cinema lie in regional cinema. The first Marathi movie Shree Pundalik by Dadasaheb Torne was released as early as 1912. Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra released in 1913 which has the distinction of being the first full-length film was a Marathi Film. And it is in honor of this legend that the Government of India has constituted the lifetime achievement award.
The Marathi film industry has never been far behind in competing with the dominant Hindi films. In 1932, just one year after the release of the famous Alam Ara, Ayodhyecha Raja, the first Marathi talkie film was released. Sant Tukaram which was the first Indian work to win the Best Film Award at the Venice film festival in 1937 was a Marathi production. So is Acharya P K Atre’s Shyamchi Aai which won the first ever National Award for the Best Feature Film. In the 1980s, Marathi cinema experimented with the genre of comedy and set new standards of filmmaking. After this, the industry went into a sudden decline unable the stand the competition from Bollywood.
The revival happened in 2004 with the film Shwaas directed by Sandeep Sawant. The beautiful portrayal of a grandfather learning to grapple with his grandson’s illness earned this film sixth rank in the Oscars for the Best Foreign Language Film. What then followed is a series of exceptionally good award winning films like Harishchandrachi Factory and Deool which made the film fraternity stand up and take notice of this industry again.
The next industry that needs special mention is that of Bengal. The contribution of Bengal to the evolution of Indian cinema has been immense. In the decades of 1900s and 1910s, Indian cinema truly emerged in what was then known as Calcutta. The silent movies and the talkies made were as good as the Hindi films that garnered all accolades. The Bengali cinema also had a pivotal role to play in India’s struggle for independence. Drawing inspiration from the revolutionary literature of the time, it helped the intelligentsia in giving a definite shape to their ideas.
As the years passed, Bengali cinema produced some of the biggest stalwarts of Indian cinema like Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. Ray’s Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) is credited for revolutionizing Indian cinema both on the technical and creative fronts. It was the first Indian movie to truly transcend the linguistic and cultural barriers. The changing times refused to bog down the spirit of Bengali cinema. The new age wave was headed by filmmakers of the likes of Rituparno Ghosh and Aparna Sen whose films like Dahan and Parama touched upon the sensitivities of middle class. The industry is also known for joint India-Bangladesh productions. This year the National Award for the Best Bengali Film went to Sankhachil, a joint venture. The intense portrayal of the anguish that the partition brought with it reminded the audience of the elements that make a truly great film.
The industries in the south especially Tamil and Malayalam have also made meaningful contributions to the growth of Indian cinema. Popularly known as Kollywood, Tamil cinema has always been far ahead of times. The first silent film Keechaka Vadham, was released in 1916 and in 1931, the first talkie Kalidas was released. The experimental nature of the industry is rarely acknowledged now. In the year, 1935, K.B. Sundarambal, a female played hero in the film Nandhanar, a bold step in those times. The first female director of Indian cinema, T.P. Rajalakshmi who directed the movie Miss Kamala, also emerged from this industry. Right after independence, Tamil cinema gave India the big-budget movie Chandralekha which was also the first movie to be well received all over the country. With the coming of director K. Balachander in the 1960s, the history of Tamil cinema was rewritten forever. The focus was laid on social issues and the heart rending narratives left a deep impression in the minds of the audience. In the current crop, Mani Ratnam with his movies Bombay, Roja and Kannathil Muthamittal stands tall. His movies bring people together on the basis of nothing but raw emotions.
The film Visaranai directed by Vetri Maraan which won the award for the Best Tamil Film in this year’s National Awards is an extremely powerful tale on the plight of four Tamil migrant workers in Guntur prison. Seldom comes a film like this that has the audacity to depict the real truth of the power equations that get played out. One couldn’t help but wonder if the film actually got its due at the awards.
Malayalam cinema took time to take off with the first film Vigathakumaran released only in 1930. Since then, the industry is known for producing some of the most critically acclaimed works. In the 1950s, P. Bhaskaran and A. Vincent were among the directors who made movies that were thought provoking. The 1970s changed the face of the industry. For it was the time, the concept of parallel cinema gained widespread acceptance. The directors Padmarajan and Bharatan spearheaded this revolution by making films that were both critically and commercially acclaimed. The movies of Adoor Gopalakrishnan, and G. Aravindan gave a truly international character to Indian cinema. Even the films that are made in the current age have stayed true to the essence of the state’s culture with realistic portrayals of events and people. Pathemari, which won the award for the Best Malayalam Film traces the life of an expatriate in the Gulf and is a story that strikes the right chord with the audience.
Nrithya Pillai, Member, Central Board of Film Certification, Chennai shares her views on the importance of regional cinema. ““There have been great filmmakers from Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Maharashtra.These three states in particular hold a special place for me with respect to their movies. Movies that have made an impact beyond the language barrier, beyond the definition of what commercial cinema should be. Each of them have their regional flavor but ride high on sentiment and emotion that everyone can relate to while giving a perspective on the rich culture of these parts of our country. I think Natrang the Marathi film is one of the greatest movies on art in recent times. Recent movies in Tamil that impacted me were Kuttram Kadidhal and Kakka Muttai, both small budget movies with big minds behind it”.
The awards are without a doubt decided by a well-qualified board. The decisions of the board have largely gone unquestioned till date. In 2012 when Paan Singh Tomar and in 2013 when the English-Hindi film, Ship of Theseus were adjudged the best films, they were seen to be well-deserving of the honor. It was only in 2016 that the lines between commercial success and artistic value became blurred to an extent unimaginable.
The films Bajiirao Mastani and Baahubali were big on magnificence like how any other big budget film is meant to be. But did these films deserve the highest honors given to Indian films? Both the films lacked the element of novelty and had almost non-existent storylines. A few extraordinary moments cannot make a film great. Moreover, the awards send out a very wrong message to the film fraternity as a whole. By sidelining the films made on small budgets meant for an even smaller audience, it has demoralized those who experiment with the unconventional.
Even Hindi films that received critical acclaim the world over like Masan and Manjhi-The Mountain Man failed to get the acknowledgement that was due. These films while dealing with pressing social issues tugged at the hearts of viewers to leave a long lasting impact on them. They went beyond the realm of populism to explore the depths of raw human emotions.
The dominance of what is referred to as ‘commercial cinema’ is a dangerous trend that needs to be arrested at the earliest. Regional artists get much better chances for performance than the commercial Hindi and Telugu movies. Perhaps it won’t be wrong to sum up that regional cinema and the artists rarely get the consideration that they deserve as the jury is often leaning towards Hindi cinema.